The Odd Women

Wonderful 19th century feminist novel by a dude, published in 1893. Great dramatic pacing and revelation whilst telling the story of the “odd women”, those that do not pair up with men, their struggle compared with the trials within marriage. Rhoda Nunn is a strong 32 year old woman who has a school with partner Mary Barfoot to teach young single ladies how to support themselves via typing. Some of the ladies fall prey to the traps of marriage, like Monica Madden, the youngest sister of Virginia and Alice, who shockingly picks up a man on a public bench, ending up marrying the middle-class Mr. Widdowson who has 600 GBP a year, and who turns into a tyrant upon marriage, refusing his wife to go anywhere without him, provoked by unreasonable jealousy that turns her heart against him. There’s also a scandal of a former pupil who runs away with a married man and becomes pregnant, ending up killing herself after appealing to Miss Barfoot for help. Rhoda bangs the drum and leads the merry band of strong women in her anti-marriage crusade, and then it sorely tempted herself by the cousin of Miss Barfoot, Everard. His motive seems mixed up with both testing the limits of her conviction and also falling in love with her, but they are taken to the precipice of matrimony, and fall back.
One speech given by Miss Barfoot, responding to an abusive letter chastising her for encouraging female competition in the clerkly world:

I don’t care whether we crowd out the men or not. I don’t care what results, if only women are made strong and self-reliant and nobly independent! The world must look to its concerns. Most likely we shall have a revolution in the social order greater than any that yet seems possible. Let it come, and let us help its coming. When I think of the contemptible wretchedness of women enslaved by custom, by their weakness, by their desires, I am ready to cry. Let the world perish in tumult rather than things go on in this way!
Our abusive correspondent shall do as best he can. He suffers for the folly of men in all ages. We can’t help it it. It is very far from our wish to cause hardship to any one, but we ourselves are escaping from a hardship that has become intolerable. We are educating ourselves. There must be a new type of woman, active in every sphere of life: a new worker out in the world, a new ruler of the home… Because we have to set an example to the sleepy of our sex, we must carry on an active warfare – must be invaders… Let the responsibility for disorder rest on those who have made us despise our old selves. At any cost – at any cost- we will free ourselves from the heritage of weakness and contempt!

A Moveable Feast

Ugh. Ernie is getting his own review here just so I have space enough to pan him. I’ve consoled myself while reading this by sipping bits of Dwight Macdonald’s critique of Hem: “a kind of inspired baby talk when he was going good. When he was not going good, it was just baby talk.” Posthumously published in 1964, you have to assume any of the good bits come from the editor. The title comes from a quote Ernie supposedly made to a pal in 1950, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” The stories detail the trials of writing and living in Paris as a poor husband with wife and kid to care for, writing in cafes in the winter because it wasn’t worth the fuel cost to try to get a fire going in his rented work studio. Like the celebrity-obsessed person he was, Ernie collected famous writers and bragged about them in this memoir. Gertrude Stein’s treatment leaves much to be desired, her genius glossed over and “tolerated” by Ern, who sighs mightily as he supposedly helps her get The Making of Americans published in installments and editing her proofs. Stein of course helps him with his writing, but also gets him some good book recommendations too, laughing at him for reading Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence, suggesting Marie Belloc Lowndes instead (yes, it’s on my list– she’s the sister of Hillaire Belloc!).
Here’s some terrible things he says about GS:
“In the three or four years that we were good friends I cannot remember Gertrude Stein ever speaking well of any writer who had not written favorably about her work or done something to advance her career.” He then accuses her of not considering Sherwood Anderson a writer until he wrote a flop. James Joyce’s name was strictly forbidden. She makes the lost generation comment to Ern after picking it up from her garage attendant, “you are all a génération perdue.” Then Hem writes, “I thought of Miss Stein and Sherwood Anderson and egotism and mental laziness versus discipline and I thought who is calling who a lost generation?” Oh shut up Ernest. In a later chapter, “The way it ended with Gertrude Stein was strange enough…” he goes on to detail a conversation he overheard where supposedly Stein was being berated by Alice, and Stein was pleading and begging, “Don’t.” So he leaves, after having a drink, of course. “In the end everyone made friends again in order not to be stuffy or righteous. I did too. But I could never make friends again truly, neither in my heart nor in my head. When you cannot make friends any more in your head is the worst. But it was more complicated than that.”
He befriends Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Co, ravages her bookshelves, goes to horse races, loses and makes money. More celebrities: Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, Jules Pascin, James Joyce, Evan Shipman, Scott Fitzgerald. He likes to shit-talk writers as well, mostly women writers, natch. “I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer, but trying to read her after Chekov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer.” Oh fuck off Ern. Mansfield could write circles around you, and you were just jealous. Terrible things said about Zelda, nothing surprising. Makes me very glad to have read her wonderful Save Me The Waltz and not have to rely on cardboard cutout descriptions of her via ErnHem.
Good quote from his pal Evan Shipman who was “a very fine poet who truly did not care if his poems were ever published”: “We need more mystery in our lives, Hem. The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”

More August Reading

Michelle Tea’s How To Grow Up is a delightful breath-mint-respite in the midst of serious reading. Once again you can let your eyes speed along the words and know that you are not missing anything by gulping down these hundreds of pages in a few hours. Best are her tales of life as a sober late 30s something living with roommates in the Mission, realizing she must get her own space before she turns 40. The memoir also details meeting her wife, their marriage, various failed relationships prior, odd jobs, her struggle with money, etc. I confess to completely skimming her section on getting Botox, because what? Also great stuff about feeling conflicted about not finishing college and various attempts to “right” that “wrong” but realizing she was already publishing books, so why would she go backwards in time?
I finally read the awesome Sarah Orne Jewett, specifically her 1896 The Country of the Pointed Firs, a great depiction of a writer visiting a Maine seacoast in the summer, living with Mrs. Todd as a boarder, becoming friends with and hearing all the tales of friends and family. Also read another of Gabrielle Bell’s comics, Cecil and Jordan in New York.
Janet Malcolm’s Forty-One False Starts is an excellent collection of her essays on art and writing. The title story is the strongest – a 1994 New Yorker piece wherein she attempts, 41 times, to start an essay on David Salle, ending up giving us a very compete picture through all those “false” starts. Runner up to that essay in my opinion was the 1995 New Yorker piece about Bloomsbury and Vanessa Bell – a House of One’s Own, referring to Vanessa’s ability to create a unique community around her, more than just a room, of her estranged husband, her lover and his gay boyfriend, along with the variously sired children. Along the way, she dissects the problem of biographies, comparing them to the collections of letters which are stronger:

The genre (like its progenitor, history) functions as a kind of processing plant where experience is converted into information the way fresh produce is converted into canned vegetables. But, like canned vegetables, biographical narratives are so far removed from their source- so altered from the plant with soil clinging to its roots that is a letter or a diary entry – that they carry little conviction. When Virginia complains to Lytton (another high-strung, single, childless individual) about what a nuisance the baby is, her voice carries great conviction, and so does Vanessa’s when she proudly exclaims over her young son’s aestheticism to his aesthete father. When Spalding writes, “In Cornwall both were infuriated,” and “On the journey out her chief pleasure lay,” we do not quite believe her. Taken from its living context, and with its blood drained out of it, the “information” of biographies is a shriveled, spurious thing. The canniest biographers, aware of the problem, rush massive transfusions of quotations to the scene. The biographies that give the greatest illusion of life, the fullest sense of their subject, are those that quote the most.

Mid-August reading

Finally forced myself to “finish” reading The Years by Woolf; I just didn’t want it to end, I kept circling back back back to re-read. Delightful. Will definitely re-read, perhaps as soon as next month. I also gulped down another Gabrielle Bell graphic novel (her first)- Lucky (I’m preferring her later work, though).

Laura Riding’s 1928 Anarchism is not enough urges us to think critically, to reject the easy path, to consider poetry. “What is a Poem?” says that poems are nothing:

The only productive design is designed waste. Designed creation results in nothing but the destruction of the designer: it is impossible to add to what is; all is and is made. Energy that attempts to make in the sense of making a numerical increase in the sum of made things is spitefully returned to itself unused. It is a would-be-happy-ness ending in unanticipated and disordered unhappiness. Energy that is aware of the impossibility of positive construction devotes itself to an ordered using-up and waste of itself: to an anticipated unhappiness which, because it has design, foreknowledge, is the nearest approach to happiness. Undesigned unhappiness and designed happiness both mean anarchism. Anarchism is not enough.

And Katherine Mansfield. Finally, to read the other writer whom Virginia Woolf could talk shop with! I enjoyed The Garden Party and Other Stories, especially the lyrical At the Bay, describing KM’s early life in New Zealand at the beach. After setting the scene, “Ah-aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again…”, a bather alights from a bungalow, plunges into the water, “Splish-Splosh! Splish-Splosh! The water bubbled round his legs as Stanley Burnell waded out exulting. First man in as usual! He’d beaten them all again. And he swooped down to souse his head and neck” only to find that Jonathan Trout was swimming and hailing him with “Glorious morning!” Stanley has a quick swim, then back home for breakfast. After he leaves, the whole family exults. “Oh the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their very voices were changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving and as if they shared a secret.” Stanley’s wife Linda begrudges the children she’s had to bear: “It was all very well to say it was the common lot of women to bear children. It wasn’t true. She, for one, could prove that wrong. She was broken, made weak, her courage was gone, through child-bearing. And what made it doubly hard to bear was, she did not love her children. It was useless pretending.” Later, Jonathan drops in, reluctantly headed back to work in a few days:

‘It seems to me just as imbecile, just as infernal, to have to go to the office on Monday,” said Jonathan, ‘as it always has done and always will do. To spend all the best years of one’s life sitting on a stool from nine to five, scratching in somebody’s ledger! It’s a queer use to make of one’s… one and only life, isn’t it?’

Definitely enjoyed most of the other stories in this collection, the famous Garden Party, The Daughters of the Late Colonel (free at last after their father’s death!), Mr and Mrs Dove, 15 stories in all. Mansfield, read her.
Last but definitely not least, Evelyn Scott’s The Narrow House, published in 1921 and a miracle of prose. I picked up her ignominiously titled biography (Pretty Good For a Woman) but decided I’d rather read some of her work first. This novel reads like a five act play, with the kind of writing that knocks you out. Laurie/Laurence marries Winnie and has two kids, Bobby and poor ignored May (the oldest), lives at home with elderly father & mother and spinster sister Alice. Winnie is sick with some deathly illness, forbidden to have another child, and yet lures Laurie to impregnate her, later resulting in her death upon the arrival of baby #3. There is unrelenting tension between the father and mother, apparently he had an affair with a woman in Kansas City years earlier that resulted in a child. Alice is intent on freeing her parents of the burden of staying together, tries to get them to part. Winnie’s death is a relief, her constant whinging of being unloved, her self-love overshadowing everything.

Laurence went out of the room, out of the house A pale fiery mist rose up from between the houses and filled the wet morning street. The houses with lowered blinds were secret and filled with women. Girls going to work came out of the houses like the words of women. Women going to market passed slowly before him with their baskets. Pregnant women walked before him in confidence. The uncolored atmosphere threw back the sky. It was the mirror of women. Laurence felt crowded between the bodies of women and houses. He walked quickly with his head bent. On the concrete pavements, washed white as bones by the storm of the night before, were rust-colored puddles. Dark and still, they quivered now and again, like quiet minds touched by the horror of a recollection. The reflections of the houses lay deep in them, shattered, like dead things.

Hiroshima

It’s been seventy years since the US unleashed unthinkable atrocities on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This book, written in 1946 except the last chapter (1985, 40 years after), captures the lives of six survivors, details what they were doing the day before the bomb, then at the moment of explosion, the immediate aftermath, and much much later. Horrendous details as they cope with trying to save people, their skin falling off, corpses piling up, the silence of those dying in the field, the mysterious ailments that plague them forever afterwards. These survivors are named hibakusha (“explosion-affected people”), and face various poor treatment from society – the government ignores them for years before finally giving them free health care, they are discriminated against for jobs and marriages. The aftermath chapter, written forty years later, intersperses with bits of information about further bomb-making and testing happening throughout the fifties, sixties, seventies. We have not learned any lessons. Also, humiliating treatment of one of the survivors, attempting to raise money for his church and disfigured hibakusha girls, goes on American television, “This Is Your Life” and has to confront the pilot of the Enola Gay, Robert Lewis. Overall, I’m trying to wrap my head around why Japan has not loathed and villianized the US for the immoral war crime.

Some early August and July books

I’m considering a new approach to the blog, summarizing smaller bits, less frequently.
July: The Years by Woolf (still reading, still enjoying, still circling back and re-reading, swirling in my mouth to savor), Gertrude Stein’s writing & lectures (ditto), and the same tired 100 pages of Infinite Jest. I suppose I’ll have to read the whole thing to have the “pleasure” of panning it here. Also some really great articles from Baffler volume 27.
August: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed (16 writers on decision not to have kids) – sadly found the best essay was from Geoff Dyer, whom I loathe. Not sure why I even wanted to read this one– I don’t need my choices affirmed by anyone. Blackout: Remembering the things I drank to forget by Sarah Hepola. Combined with Shallow, etc, I have a murky picture of someone in a basement apartment in Queens locking themselves into a closet to keep from going out… but I think I’m combining the two books. Semi-decent autobiographical account of addiction and bounce-back. On the graphic novel front, Kate Beaton’s amazing jokes about history and literature in Hark! A Vagrant, including “Dude Watchin’ with the Brontes (Get Me Off Of This Freaking Moor)” and Anne of Sleeves (wherein Anne of Green Gable fantasizes about a dress with sleeves, “Gilbert Blythe How did you get into this lovely daydream, leave at once!” as he moans “Carrots”). Also graphically speaking, Truth is Fragmentary: travelogues and diaries by Gabrielle Bell. I stumbled onto Bell via a Drawn & Quarterly compilation and discovered she’d turned SCUM manifesto into a comic. Her diaries are great depiction of shy artist struggling to promote herself and interact with fans; she’s also a Montaigne fan, trying to read the essays (me too!). Also just finished up Bell’s The Voyeurs – another great graphic autobiographical work, covering a four year period of Gabrielle’s life, 2007-2010, her various long distance relationships and visits to comic cons and other speaking gigs.